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Paul Gauguin and the Impressionists (part 2)

You can read part 1 here.

The text below is the excerpt from the book Paul Gauguin, written by Anna Barskaya, published by Parkstone International.

Gauguin’s deviation from Impressionism first manifested itself during his stay in Rouen. It is particularly evident in his plastic works, a case in point being the carving of a small wooden jewellery box. The decor of the external sides ornamented with theatrical masks and ballet dancers in tutus (a design borrowed from Degas) is in striking contrast with the corpse-like figure in the bottom of the box, which is reminiscent of a Peruvian mummy. This clash of motifs – worldly amusements and death – leaves no doubt as to the allegoric meaning the artist wanted to convey:

Dieppe Beach, 1885. Oil on canvas, 38 x 46 cm. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.

the theme of vanitas, the transience of human life. This interest in the artist’s inner feelings, in conveying an abstract idea instead of his visual impressions, was far removed from the Impressionist conception. It is also worthy of note that the treatment of folial designs, of a bizarre male profile and of a female figure (which is thought to symbolize maternity) betrays certain iconographic and stylistic features found in Gauguin’s future symbolic works, particularly of his carved wooden panels.

Gauguin’s stay in Copenhagen, far from his recent fellow artists, stimulated him to form an independent opinion of his art which, by his own admission, was rather “one of thought than of acquired technique”.

Snow effects (snow in rue Carcel), 1882-1883. Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm.
Ny Carlsberg Glypothek, Copenhagen.

The winter in Copenhagen was not conducive to working in the open, and Gauguin concentrated on theoretical problems. Art magazines kept him in touch with artistic life in Paris, and he was well informed about all exhibitions which took place there, including the Delacroix retrospective. He was acquainted with the press it received and with the written works of Delacroix himself and his interpreter Charles Baudelaire.

Excited by the coincidence between some of Delacroix’s ideas and his own, Gauguin sent a letter to his old friend Emile Schuffenecker (14 January 1885), in which he once again raised the theme touched upon in the Notes synthétiques:

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m crazy, and yet the more I think things over at night, in my bed, the more I believe I’m right. For a long time the philosophers have been reasoning about phenomena which seem superuatural to us and which we nonetheless sense. That word is the key to everything…

In my opinion, the great artist is the formulator of the greatest intelligence. The sentiments which occur to him are the most delicate and, consequently, the most invisible products, or translations, of the mind… All our five senses reach the brain directly imprinted with an infinity of things that no education can destroy. I conclude from this that there are lines that are noble, deceptive, etc There are tones that are noble, others that are common, harmonies that are calm and comforting, others that excite you with their boldness… The more I advance, the more I give credence to this sense of translations of thought by something totally different from literature…

In Raphael’s paintings there are harmonies of line of which one is not aware, as it is the most intimate part of the soul that finds itself completely concealed.”

Wrack Collectors, 1889. Oil on canvas,
87 x 122.5 cm. Folkwang Museum, Essen.

Then came a word of advice: “…Work freely and madly; you will make progress and sooner or later people will learn to recognize your worth – if you have any. Above all, don’t sweat over a painting; a great sentiment can be rendered immediately. Dream on it and look for the simplest form in which you can express it.”

Otabi (alone), 1893. Oil on canvas, 50 x 73 cm. Private collection.

Gauguin developed those views in another letter to Schuffenecker (on 24 May 1885), which was entirely devoted to Delacroix, then the idol of the French artistic avant-garde. Gauguin’s infatuation with Delacroix was symptomatic in many respects. In contrast to some of his contemporaries, who, like Paul Signac – the founder of Neo-Impressionism – mostly admired Delacroix as a colourist, Gauguin saw his strength in his expressive and vigorous drawing which endowed his paintings with vitality and dramatic tension. Gauguin was enchanted by the flight of imagination apparent in Delacroix’s pictures, by the freedom and suppleness of form and by his ability to sacrifice prosaic verisimilitude for the sake of revealing the essence of visual reality. Gauguin saw Delacroix as a painter whose personality and temperament were reflected in his artistic manner. “That man had the temperament of the wild beasts. That’s why he painted them so well,” he wrote to Schuffenecker. “Delacroix’s drawing always reminds me of the strong, supple movements of a tiger. When you look at that superb animal you never know where the muscles are attached, and the contortions of a paw are an image of the impossible, yet they are real.”…

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